“Hurry,” I said. My adrenaline was fading quickly. My avatar form was starting to feel like an extra five hundred pounds of dead weight. “Get the scarab to Ra.”
She nodded, and ran toward the sun boat; but she’d only made it halfway when Menshikov’s glass grave blew up.
The most powerful explosive magic I’d ever seen was Sadie’s ha-di spell. This blast was about fifty times more powerful.
A high-powered wave of sand and glass shards knocked me off my feet and shredded my avatar. Back in my regular body, blind and in pain, I crawled away from the laughing voice of Apophis.
“Where did you go, Sadie Kane?” Apophis called, his voice now as deep as a cannon shot. “Where is that bad little girl with my scarab?”
I blinked the sand out of my eyes. Vlad Menshikov—no, he might look like Vlad, but he was Apophis now—was about fifty feet away, stalking around the rim of the crater he’d made in the beach. He either didn’t see me, or he assumed I was dead. He was looking for Sadie, but she was nowhere. The blast must’ve buried her in the sand, or worse.
My throat closed up. I wanted to get to my feet and tackle Apophis, but my body wouldn’t work. My magic was depleted. The power of Chaos was sapping my life force. Just from being near Apophis I felt like I was coming undone—my brain synapses, my DNA, everything that made me Carter Kane was slowly dissolving.
Finally, Apophis spread his arms. “No matter. I’ll dig your body up later. First, I’ll deal with the old man.”
For a second I thought he meant Desjardins, who was still crumpled lifelessly over the broken railing, but Apophis climbed into the boat, ignoring the Chief Lector, and approached the throne of fire.
“Hello, Ra,” he said in a kindly voice. “It’s been a long time.”
A feeble voice from behind the chair said, “Can’t play. Go away.”
“Would you like a treat?” Apophis asked. “We used to play so nicely together. Every night, trying to kill each other. Don’t you remember?”
Ra poked his bald head above the throne. “Treat?”
“How about a stuffed date?” Apophis pulled one out of the air. “You used to love stuffed dates, didn’t you? All you have to do is come out and let me devour—I mean, entertain you.”
“Want a cookie,” Ra said.
I’m here to tell you, that comment about weasel cookies probably saved the known universe.
Apophis stepped back, obviously confused by a comment that was even more chaotic than he was. And in that moment, Michel Desjardins struck.
The Chief Lector must have been playing dead, or maybe he just recovered quickly. He rose up and launched himself at Apophis, slamming him against the burning throne.
Menshikov screamed in his old raspy voice. Steam hissed like water on a barbecue. Desjardins’ robes caught fire. Ra scrambled to the back of the boat and poked his crook in the air like that would make the bad men go away.
I struggled to my feet, but I still felt like I was carrying a few hundred extra pounds. Menshikov and Desjardins grappled with each other in front of the throne. This was the scene I’d witnessed in the Hall of Ages: the first moment in a new age.
I knew I should help, but I scrambled along the beach, trying to gauge the spot where I’d last seen Sadie. I fell to my knees and started to dig.
Desjardins and Menshikov struggled back and forth, shouting out words of power. I glanced over and saw a cloud of hieroglyphs and red light swirling around them as the Chief Lector summoned Ma’at, and Apophis just as quickly dissolved his spells with Chaos. As for Ra, the almighty sun god, he had scrambled to the stern of the boat and was cowering under the tiller.
I kept digging.
“Sadie,” I muttered. “Come on. Where are you?”
Think, I told myself.
I closed my eyes. I thought about Sadie—every memory we’d shared since Christmas. We’d lived apart for years, but over the last three months, I’d become closer to her than to anyone else in the world. If she could figure out my secret name while I was unconscious, surely I could find her in a pile of sand.
I scrambled a few feet to the left and began to dig again. Immediately I scratched Sadie’s nose. She groaned, which at least meant she was alive. I brushed off her face and she coughed. Then she raised her arms, and I pulled her out of the sand. I was so relieved, I almost sobbed; but being a macho guy and all, I didn’t.
[Shut up, Sadie. I’m telling this part.]
Apophis and Desjardins were still fighting back and forth on the sun boat.
Desjardins yelled, “Heh-sieh!” and a hieroglyph blazed between them:
Apophis went flying off the boat like he’d been hooked by a moving train. He sailed right over us and landed in the sand about forty feet away.
“Nice one,” Sadie muttered in a daze. “Glyph for ‘Turn back.’”
Desjardins staggered off the sun boat. His robes were still smoldering, but from his sleeve he pulled a ceramic statuette —a red snake carved with hieroglyphs.
Sadie gasped. “A shabti of Apophis? The penalty for making those is death!”
I could understand why. Images had power. In the wrong hands, they could strengthen or even summon the being they represented, and a statue of Apophis was way too dangerous to play with. But it was also a necessary ingredient for certain spells….
“An execration,” I said. “He’s trying to erase Apophis.”
“That’s impossible!” Sadie said. “He’ll be destroyed!”
Desjardins began to chant. Hieroglyphs glowed in the air around him, swirling into a cone of protective power. Sadie tried to get to her feet, but she wasn’t in much better shape than I was.
Apophis sat up. His face was a nightmare of burns from the throne of fire. He looked like a half-cooked hamburger patty someone had dropped in the sand. [Sadie says that’s too gross. Well, I’m sorry. It’s accurate.]
When he saw the statue in the Chief Lector’s hands, he roared in outrage. “Are you insane, Michel? You can’t execrate me!”
“Apophis,” Desjardins chanted, “I name you Lord of Chaos, Serpent in the Dark, Fear of the Twelve Houses, the Hated One—”
“Stop it!” Apophis bellowed. “I cannot be contained!”
He shot a blast of fire at Desjardins, but the energy simply joined the swirling cloud around the Chief Lector, turning into the hieroglyph for “heat.” Desjardins stumbled forward, aging before our eyes, becoming more stooped and frail, but his voice remained strong. “I speak for the gods. I speak for the House of Life. I am a servant of Ma’at. I cast you underfoot.”
Desjardins threw down the red snake, and Apophis fell to his side.
The Lord of Chaos hurled everything he had at Desjardins —ice, poison, lightning, boulders—but nothing connected. They all simply turned into hieroglyphs in the Chief Lector’s shield, Chaos forced into patterns of words—into the divine language of creation.
Desjardins smashed the ceramic snake under his foot. Apophis writhed in agony. The thing that used to be Vladimir Menshikov crumbled like a wax shell, and a creature rose out of it—a red snake, covered in slime like a new hatchling. It began to grow, its red scales glistening and its eyes glowing.
Its voice hissed in my mind: I cannot be contained!
But it was having trouble rising. The sand churned around it. A portal was opening, anchored on Apophis himself.
“I erase your name,” Desjardins said. “I remove you from the memory of Egypt.”
Apophis screamed. The beach imploded around him, swallowing the serpent and sucking the red sand into the vortex.
I grabbed Sadie and ran for the boat. Desjardins had collapsed to his knees in exhaustion, but somehow I managed to hook his arm and drag him to the shore. Together Sadie and I hauled him aboard the sun boat. Ra finally scrambled out from his hiding place under the tiller. The glowing servant lights manned the oars, and we pulled away as the entire beach sank into the dark waters, flashes of red lightning rippling under the surface.
Desjardins was dying.
The hieroglyphs had faded around him. His forehead was burning hot. His skin was as dry and thin as rice paper, and his voice was a ragged whisper.
“Execration w-won’t last,” he warned. “Only bought you some time.”
I gripped his hand like he was an old friend, not a former enemy. After playing senet with the moon god, buying time wasn’t something I took lightly. “Why did you do it?” I asked. “You used all your life force to banish him.”
Desjardins smiled faintly. “Don’t like you much. But you were right. The old ways…our only chance. Tell Amos…tell Amos what happened.” He clawed feebly at his leopard-skin cape, and I realized he wanted to remove it. I helped him, and he pressed the cape into my hands. “Show this to…the others.… Tell Amos…”
His eyes rolled into his head, and the Chief Lector passed. His body disintegrated into hieroglyphs—too many to read, the story of his entire life. Then the words floated away down the River of Night.
“Bye-bye,” Ra muttered. “Weasels are sick.”
I’d almost forgotten about the old god. He slumped in his throne again, resting his head on the loop of his crook and swatting his flail halfheartedly at the servant lights.
Sadie took a shaky breath. “Desjardins saved us. I—I didn’t like him either, but—”
“I know,” I said. “But we have to keep going. Do you still have the scarab?”
Sadie pulled the wriggling golden scarab from her pocket. Together we approached Ra.
“Take it,” I told him.
Ra wrinkled his already wrinkled nose. “Don’t want a bug.”
“It’s your soul!” Sadie snapped. “You’ll take it, and you’ll like it!”
Ra looked cowed. He took the beetle, and to my horror, popped it in his mouth.
“No!” Sadie yelped.
Too late. Ra had swallowed.
“Oh, god,” Sadie said. “Was he supposed to do that? Maybe he was supposed to do that.”
“Don’t like bugs,” Ra muttered.
We waited for him to change into a powerful youthful king. Instead, he burped. He stayed old, and weird, and disgusting.
In a daze, I walked with Sadie back to the front of the ship. We’d done everything we could, and yet I felt like we’d lost. As we sailed on, the magic pressure seemed to ease. The river appeared level, but I could sense we were rising rapidly through the Duat. Despite that, I still felt like my insides were melting. Sadie didn’t look any better.
Menshikov’s words echoed in my head: Mortals can’t leave this cavern alive.
“It’s Chaos sickness,” Sadie said. “We’re not going to make it, are we?”
“We have to hold on,” I said. “At least until dawn.”
“All that,” Sadie said, “and what happened? We retrieved a senile god. We lost Bes and the Chief Lector. And we’re dying.”
I took Sadie’s hand. “Maybe not. Look.”